Kerry echoes Russian view on 'terrorist' Syrian rebel groups

Kerry echoes Russian view on 'terrorist' Syrian rebel groups
Startled White House officials rushed to clarify a statement made by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, who appeared to label some of Syria's largest rebel groups as 'terrorists'.
3 min read
13 Jul, 2016
John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov at a Syria support conference in March [Getty]
Alarm bells rang in the White House after US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to label some of Syria's largest and most successful rebel groups as "terrorists".

Speaking at the US city of Aspen in June - and only recently picked up by media - Kerry appeared to echo Russia's views on rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, saying Moscow and Washington must defeat "terrorism" in Syria.

"There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated - [Islamic State group] and [al-Nusra Front] - Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly - who brush off and fight with that - alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime," Kerry said.

This appeared to break from previous convention among US government representatives not to refer to these two powerful rebel forces as "terrorists".

Leaders of Ahrar al-Sham - which operated mostly in Aleppo - and Jaish al-Islam - based largely in the Damascus suburbs - follow the ultra-conservative Salafi version of Islam.

Russia and the Syrian regime have described them as terrorist groups, and said they are akin or the same to IS and al-Qaeda.

Many Syrians see them as freedom fighters, and taking a leading role in the fighting against regime President Bashar al-Assad.

Although the speech was made last June, startled White House officials contacted The Washington Post recently to say that Kerry's description were both inaccurate and possibly detrimental to President Obama's mission to stop Russian and Syrian regime planes attacking these groups.

"For months, we've been arguing to make sure the Russians and the Syrian regime don't equate these groups with the terrorists," a senior Washington administration official told the WP's  Josh Rogin. "Kerry's line yields that point."

He was also told by the state department that there was no change to who the US views as "terrorist groups" in Syria. Washington follows the UN designate which applies to jihadi groups such as al-Nusra Front and IS, bit not Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam.

The latter two are officially included in Syria's truce, although they have been targeted by the regime and Russia throughout the ceasefire. Bombing of northern and southern rebel territories has cost tens of thousands of lives, although these areas should be covered by the ceasefire.

Ahrar al-Sham does not have a clear stance on whether it aligns to or rejects Nusra, but the two rebels groups have fought in the same battles against the regime.

Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam are also taking a leading role in the fight against IS.

"Ahrar al-Sham is facing a dilemma with regard to fighting the Nusra Front," said a source close to the group. "Having many cadres from Homs in both factions [it] makes in-fighting unlikely."

Ahrar al-Sham was recently named by Amnesty International as being among several Syrian rebel groups who are "guilty of war crimes" including torture and repression of minorities.

However, they are also said to be popular among many Syian civilians in the country, for providing protection against the regime army and allied militias.